By Kim Lowe, Simple Intentions Managing Editor
Last week we premiered a revamped version of our program, Success With Stress, a workshop format that helps participants become more aware of the specific stressors in their lives and learn proactive strategies to lessen the level, frequency and duration of negative stress.
Simply stated — and considering most of us are chronically stressed — our primary intention for this program is to open a conversation that helps people manage chronic stress that too often – and too significantly – leads to productivity issues in the workplace and health issues in our lives.
And indeed, this preview event spurred an engaging discussion. Interestingly, we spent as much time discussing the physiology of stress as we did the preventative strategies. People wanted to know: What happens to our bodies, physiologically, when we encounter stress? Importantly, what happens when stress lingers, chronically, in our bodies?
The short answer is: Our stress response is the same, whether from a physical threat or a relentless workload. Our heart rate accelerates and our blood pressure increases among other physiological responses. What’s key is releasing the stress, eliciting our relaxation response, which calms our bodies and returns us to balance.
You can see where this is going. Acute physical threats typically pass, naturally allowing the relaxation response to kick in. Somebody nearly sideswipes you in traffic, but once he passes, you breathe a sigh of relief and drive on. Our workload, on the other hand, may seem forever unrelenting. Who can relax when there’s always more to do?
The question came up during the workshop about how stress impacts our brains. We talked about the links between chronic stress and such diseases as high cholesterol, cancer and obesity. But especially for the high-achieving managers and business owners in the room interested in maintaining their intellectual edge, there was also concern about the impact of chronic stress on our brains.
In fact, emerging research reveals our greatest fear: Chronic stress may be shrinking our brains. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, as well Yale have studied the impact of chronic stress on brain structure. This TED-Ed video, How Stress Affects Your Brain, explains it well. Altogether, the research links chronic stress to:
- Increased activity in the amygdala, our brain’s fear center
- Decreased activity in the hippocampus, where learning, memories and stress control take place
- Decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex, the center of concentration and judgement
- Decreased brain volume and brain cells
It’s our belief, based on years of client feedback, that chronic stress and its detrimental effects have gone too long unacknowledged and unaddressed, especially in the workplace, where negative stress can impact productivity, engagement and performance. And while there are proven remedies for releasing stress, including exercise and meditation, what’s less often discussed are proactive measures to approach stress and lessen its impact — things like giving up control and saying what we mean. These are foundational strategies to Success With Stress, and we’re excited to relaunch this program and start new conversations about stress at work and in life.